Mickelson's Augusta warm-up on thin ice
Phil Mickelson's decision to take in this week's Shell Houston Open ahead of next week's Masters looked especially astute after a hugely disappointing final-round 77 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Bay Hill left him wallowing in 30th place on two-over.
A splendid 67 on Friday had sent Mickelson coasting into the weekend on a wave of enthusiasm. Yet Saturday's lacklustre 75 knocked the wind out of his sails and the Californian looked thoroughly dejected as he walked off the green at 18 yesterday after stumbling to his fourth bogey in seven holes.
Mickelson's final day got off to a bad start when he drove into trouble on the par-four third, took a penalty drop and then hit his next into water, a treble-bogey seven setting the tone for a hit-and-miss afternoon.
As his wife Amy and mother Mary battle with breast cancer, Mickelson's priorities inevitably lie elsewhere but playing in Houston this week will give him a valuable opportunity to sharpen his focus for Augusta.
As Mickelson turned his attention to Houston, mother nature intervened like a timely bell in a boxing match as leader Ernie Els reeled on the ropes after dropping three shots in two holes.
Els, the hottest player in world golf after his victory at Doral a fortnight ago, appeared to be strolling to a second career win at Bay Hill until he was caught by those two sucker-punches on 13 and 14.
Yet as he came to terms with those two body blows, a violent electrical storm moved into the Orlando area, forcing play to a halt for the day and giving Els a priceless opportunity to clear his head before the action resumes this morning.
The final round had opened on a glorious note for Els when he birdied the demanding first hole and few would have bet against the South African as he completed his front nine in two-under, beaming broadly after pitching-in from 53 yards for a wonderful three at the ninth.
Chris Couch had moved to within two strokes of the leader after four birdies and just one bogey on his outward half but the American, playing on a special medical exemption after years battling poor form and injury, would struggle to keep pace with the imperious-looking Els.
Couch dropped two shots early in his back nine, while Els putted adroitly from 15 feet for birdie at 10 and when another followed at 12, the South African was five strokes ahead of his nearest challenger and looking utterly invincible.
Then, in his inimitable way, Els decided to make it interesting, chalking up a double-bogey six on foot of a serious tactical error on the tee at 13, then dropping another shot out of a difficult lie in the sand short of the green at 14. His decision to hit driver at 13 turned out to be a major blunder for Els, whose tee shot ran through the fairway into a bunker.
When his approach fell short in the lake, one suddenly began to wonder how this notorious hydrophobe would handle the water on Bay Hill's final three holes. Yet as Els, his expression as dark as the thunderclouds overhead, walked to the 15th tee, the siren sounded, giving him priceless respite.
On the other hand, Kevin Na, three under for his round and nine under for the tournament as his second shot lay on the front edge of the green at the par-four 15th, would learn he was just two shots off the lead and have a valuable chance to gird himself for a final assault on the lead.
Retief Goosen, who had just dropped a shot on 17, was tied on eight-under with Els' two playing companions, Ben Curtis and Couch, when the weather intervened.
Edoardo Molinari was following up on his younger brother Francesco's fine fourth place at the Open de Andalucia with a creditable performance of his own on the opposite side of the Atlantic as he lay in a tie for sixth on seven-under through 14 holes.